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Jets Send a Message to the Football World


The Indianapolis Colts are a solid seven-point Super Bowl XLI favorite over the Chicago Bears, but the Colts were an overwhelming favorite before they faced the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Weeb Ewbank's Jets, the AFL Champions and winners of 11 regular season games in 1968, were anywhere between 17.5-19 point underdogs against the Champions of the NFL.

Back '68, the Baltimore Colts (15-1) had a defense that tied an NFL-record by allowing 144 points during the regular season. In the NFL Championship game, the Colts shutout the Cleveland Browns by a 34-0 score.

"They seem to blitz everybody on the team, the assistant coaches and the waterboy," said Cleveland quarterback Bill Nelsen after watching the Colts.

In the first two match-ups between champions from the NFL and the AFL, the Green Bay Packers had beaten the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs by an average of 22 points. Many people in the AFL wondered if this game played at the Orange Bowl in Miami would be the biggest blowout of them all.

"Having seen what the Colts did to Cleveland in their championship game, I really thought the Colts would beat the Jets easily," said the late Lamar Hunt, the Kansas City Chiefs Owner and AFL Founder.

But the Jets were confident after a wild 27-23 AFC Championship triumph over the Raiders at Shea Stadium. On a cold and windy day, Joe Namath tossed three touchdown passes and the Jets held on for a thrilling victory. Namath, the AFL Player of the Year, was an inspiring figure for his teammates.

"It's a funny thing," said one AFC coach. "His total affects both the offense and the defense of the Jets more than the work of any one single man on any other team I can think of. They all know he can make the big play and get him out of trouble."

Namath, who threw five interceptions in two of the Jets' three regular season losses against Buffalo and Denver, didn't lack confidence heading into Super Bowl III. In response to a heckler at the Miami Touchdown Club, Namath - on hand to receive his outstanding player of the year award - guaranteed victory.

"I didn't plan it. I never would have said it if that loudmouth hadn't popped off," he said. "I just shot back. It was simply a gut reaction."

Three days later, the Jets were involved in a blowout all right. The Green & White coasted to a 16-0 lead behind a Matt Snell four-yard scoring run and three second half field goals by Jim Tuner. Snell actually produced the most impressive stats against the Colts, pounding out 121 rush yards on 30 carries and catching four balls for another 40 yards.

The Jets reminded the Colts they had a pretty good defense of their own. They picked off four Colts' passes with Randy Beverly registering two interceptions and Jim Hudson and Johnny Sample pitching in with one apiece. Journeyman Earl Morrall was victimized by three turnovers and then future Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas got into the act with one. Unitas directed a late touchdown drive, but the Jets handily won the decision 16-7.

Namath, credited with calling many plays at the line, took home Game MVP honors after playing error free football. The gunslinger connected on 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards including eight hook-ups with George Sauer for 133 yards.

"I give Namath all the credit in the world," said Baltimore head coach Don Shula. "He backed up everything he said. We killed teams with our blitz all season, but Namath got rid of the ball so fast that even when one of our rushers came free, he still couldn't get to Namath in time."

It was a golden time for the Jets and the American Football League. The Jets' victory boosted the AFL's credibility and the two leagues would eventually merge in 1970.

"The merger was in place, the leagues were coming together, and with the Jets winning, we now had a horse race," Hunt said. "People knew the AFL was for real."

Ironically, Ewbank's first head coaching job came with the Baltimore Colts where he won championships in the fifth and sixth of his nine seasons. He was the only coach in Pro Football history to build two teams from their inception into world champions and was the 11th Coach to be enshrined into the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame.

On Sunday, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith will lead their teams against each other and the National Football League will crown its champion. Their game will be played at Dolphins Stadium – approximately 15 miles away from the Orange Bowl and 38 years after the New York Jets changed the football world.

"That game wasn't about money or individual honors, it was about respect," Namath said. "We didn't get any respect before the game. Our league didn't get any respect, period. When we won, we felt like we won for a whole lot of people, not just ourselves.

"We sent a message to all the underdogs out there - in sports, in business, in life in general - that, hey, if you want something bad enough and you aren't afraid to lay it on the line, you can come out on top. That is an important message because if people don't have hope, really, what do they have?"

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